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Sri Lankan Justice Has No Place for ‘Accountable Amnesties’

Commission Recommendation Conflicts with UN Resolution

It’s time to add “accountable amnesties” to notable oxymorons like “open secret” and “working vacation.”

A Tamil woman cries as she holds up an image of her family member who disappeared during the civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at a vigil to commemorate the international day of the disappeared in Colombo August 30, 2013. © 2013 Reuters

According to Sri Lankan media reports, the Presidential Commission to Investigate Complaints Regarding Missing Persons is recommending those accused of human rights abuses during the final months of Sri Lanka’s war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) be allowed to seek so-called “accountable amnesty.”

The commission reportedly says in its final report that those charged with violations of international human rights or humanitarian law should be investigated by local authorities, prosecuted by the attorney general, and tried before local judges in a special high court. This is contrary to the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution last October, which recognized the need for “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators” in a Sri Lankan tribunal.

The commission also says that those charged should be given an opportunity to explain their actions before the planned Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Commission chairman Maxwell Paranagama told the New Indian Express the commission should “consider giving some of those who pleaded guilty an accountable amnesty. They will not be allowed to go scot free but will be given an appropriate punishment.” This would apparently amount to paying fines and forfeiting promotions.

Were the Sri Lankan government to adopt this approach, a military commander or government official may be able to buy their way out of a criminal prosecution for summary killings, torture, and enforced disappearances by admitting their crimes to a non-judicial body and presumably not having to face evidence presented against them.

It’s true that South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided full amnesties to those who confessed their guilt. As Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has recognized, this approach is now regarded as outdated and falls short of international standards.

Sri Lanka is obligated to prosecute those responsible for serious crimes in violation of international law. A slap on the wrist for grave crimes is not justice – even if it comes with public admissions of guilt. The thousands of victims of abuses and their families from all sides in Sri Lanka’s war should not be left out of the accountability process. All Sri Lankans need to see those responsible for atrocities appropriately punished.

“Accountable amnesty” evokes all the seriousness of “jumbo shrimp” – it’s not a real way forward. Transitional justice in Sri Lanka needs to involve genuine trials, with the added expertise and protection offered by foreign judges, prosecutors, and investigators – and impose punishments that the fit the crime.

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